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Memoir Writing Advice from Jon Reiner

Have you ever wanted to share your life story in a memoir? To get some tips, we caught up with Jon Reiner–the author who teaches Mediabistro’s upcoming Memoir Writing course.

Reiner discussed the back story behind his award-winning memoir, The Man Who Couldn’t Eat, along with advice for writing a great memoir. Check out the highlights from our interview below…

Q: What advice do you have for others who want to write their own memoir?
A: Figure out the story first and test it with a trusted, critical reader or editor. Is the story compelling enough to keep a reader interested? That’s the first test and you can’t fudge it. If you believe the story can work, begin to write in a scene structure to avoid falling into the confessional diary pattern. If you find that it’s moving and scenes are begetting scenes, keep going.

Q: How did you first establish your professional writing career?
A: After years of writing fiction, drama and screenplays and not getting published or produced, my guts exploded and I was asked by Esquire to write about the ‘Nothing-By-Mouth’ aftermath. It was a fluke, and I pounced on the opportunity. The story won a James Beard Foundation Award, was nominated for a National Magazine Award and led to a book contract for my memoir with Simon & Schuster. I became a 20-year overnight sensation.

Q: Is there a marked difference to how you approach writing essays and magazine articles versus a book?
A: Yes and no. Both require me to think of a story and get interested in it, get myself in the mindset of the narrative to start researching and playing with the pieces. The difference may be in how quickly I jump into the actual writing, with a magazine piece starting faster than a book.

Q: Describe your research process for writing your memoir.
A: I’d already written 15,000 words for Esquire and another several thousand for the book proposal, so I started with what I had and grew it from there, settling on the narrative timeframe and three-part structure as I wrote. Since I was telling personal history, I conducted a few interviews to check my memory, but all of the detail — menu items from 1968, for example, medical principles — I was able to research on the web.

 

Q: Share your thoughts on what characteristics define a great memoir.
A: The same qualities that define a great novel — voice, story, character, dialogue, setting, narrative arc. Great writing is great storytelling; the genre doesn’t matter. Frank McCourt was a great storyteller and so is William Trevor.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m writing a novel that I’ve been thinking about and researching for 15 years.

Mediabistro Course

The Art of the Book Review

The Art of the Book ReviewStarting August 4, learn how to get paid to write reviews that will influence the publishing landscape! Taught by a Publishers Weekly book critic, you'll learn how to recommend a book to its audience, write reviews of varying lengths, tailor a review to a specific publication and more! You'll leave this course with two original reviews and a list of paying markets for book reviews. Register now!